Samhain and the Legend of Jack O’Lantern

Precursor to the carved Pumpkin, a Turnip - The Irish Place
The precursor to the carved Pumpkin, the far more scary carved Turnip on display in the Museum of Country Life located in Turlough Village near Castlebar, County Mayo in Ireland.

Samhain was a pagan festival dating from Celtic times in Ireland.

It is referenced in some of the country’s very earliest literature and has many connections to Irish mythology, with countless tales involving evil spirits and the afterworld.

One the most famed legends associated with this ghostly time is the intriguing tale of Jack O’Lantern.

It’s a tale that has clearly influenced the modern Halloween tradition, where pumpkins are carved with scary faces, lit from within with a candle and placed in windows on Halloween night.

The Changing Seasons

Samhain heralded the start of the colder months in the Celtic religion and was regarded as a ‘liminal’ period – that is, when the boundaries between the living world and that of evil spirits could be temporarily crossed.

The legend of Jack O’Lantern and the customs of carving pumpkins that we are so familiar with today are intrinsically connected to this ghostly ancient season.

Feasting with the Departed

At this time of year, custom dictated that the visiting spirits must be placated with gifts of drink and food.

Grand feasts were held, to which the souls of dear departed relatives were invited to attend, with places even set at the table for them.

People hoping to avoid being recognised by the souls of those they had crossed in life would dress up in masks and other disguises. Various games and rituals were also very important.

Stingy Jack

One of the tales most associated with Halloween is the story of Jack O’ Lantern.

This story derives from an ancient Irish tale concerning a dubious and unpleasant character by the name of Stingy Jack.

Drunken Miser

Stingy Jack worked as a blacksmith and had a reputation for being a drunk and a miser who was forever playing mean tricks on his family and friends.

One day, he happened upon the Devil himself in his local hostelry.

Remarkably unfazed, Jack brazenly invited the Satan to join him at his table and have a drink with him.

However, being as stingy as he was, Jack was of course entirely unwilling to pay for the drinks, so he suggested that the Devil should transform himself into a coin that could be used to settle the bill.

In exchange for this, Jack offered the devil his soul.

However, once the Devil had agreed and had transformed into the required coin, Jack cunningly put it into his pocket along with a silver cross, which stopped the Devil from transforming back into his true form.

The Passing of Time

Jack did eventually deign to free the Devil, but only did so once the Devil agreed to leave him in peace for the next ten years and not try to claim his soul until that time had elapsed.

Over the years that followed, Jack continued to be just as miserly and unpleasant as before.

Audacious Trick

One cold night a decade later, Jack was confronted by the Devil as he made is way home down a dark country lane.

The Devil wanted Jack’s soul, but Jack, thinking on his feet, tricked the Devil yet again.

He begged the Devil to get him an apple from a nearby tree so that he might have a final taste of life in the human world.

As the Devil climbed high into the boughs of the tree, Jack quickly carved a cross on the trunk, stopping the Devil from descending.

Jubilantly, Jack demanded that the Devil renounce his claim on his soul. The Devil, cornered, agreed.

Jack’s Comeuppance

Not long after this, Jack died.

His spirit travelled to the gates of heaven but was turned away by St. Peter, who was not prepared to accept such a mean and miserly soul and ordered him to journey down to hell.

However, when he reached the gates of hell, his entry was again blocked, this time by the Devil, who was still smarting at being tricked by Jack back in the human world.

Fiery Ember

Jack started to panic, terrified that he was now condemned to forever wander the terrible darkness that the Celtic religion dictated separated heaven from hell.

He appealed to the Devil to help him.

The Devil contemptuously threw Jack a spare ember from the fires of hell to help him see his way.

Jack put the ember into a turnip that he had hollowed out and carried it with him as he restlessly roamed the Earth alongside other evil spirits, an endless journey that is said to continue to this day.

Thus the legend of Jack O’Lantern (so closely connected with Samhain and therefore also with our present-day custom of carving pumpkins) was born.

Carved Pumpkins - Wiki Commons - The Irish Place
Carved Pumpkins – Wiki Commons

Irish Halloween Today

In the Irish tradition, people recreated the Jack O’Lantern by carving the faces of evil spirits into potatoes or turnips, lighting them, and putting them in their window on Samhain to scare away any spirits that happened to wander by.

This tradition was taken to America by Irish emigrants, but pumpkins were used due to their abundance in place of turnips.


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